Secret Knowledge—or a Hoax?

The Voynich Manuscript

edited by Raymond Clemens, with an introduction by Deborah Harkness
Beinecke Library/ Yale University Press, 304 pp., $50.00
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
A page from the ‘herbal’ portion of the Voynich manuscript, a mysterious volume from the first half of the fifteenth century whose script has never been deciphered

In 1969 America’s most significant dealer in medieval manuscripts, the Viennese-born bibliophile Hans Peter Kraus, donated a celebrated volume to Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Measuring ten inches by seven and bound in limp white vellum (the Renaissance bookbinder’s equivalent of paperback, and definitely not the original cover), Kraus’s gift was cataloged as Beinecke MS 408.

The manuscript’s celebrity is at first sight puzzling, since it is an unglamorous, even somewhat shabby object: 234 pages gathered in eighteen “quires,” or foldings, each consisting of between one and six double pages, or “bifolia.” Very unusually for a medieval manuscript, Beinecke MS 408 also includes eleven larger “foldout” pages, containing what appear to be astronomical or astrological diagrams. At some date after the book’s compilation, each folio was numbered in ink on the right-hand opening (technically known as the recto).

The first 130 pages of the volume are taken up with what appears to be an herbal, each page containing a large if somewhat sloppily executed drawing of a plant, depicting root, stem, flowers, and leaves, around which extensive text, in no recognizable language but written in a fluent cursive hand, has been carefully arranged so as to avoid encroaching on any part of the picture. This “herbal” section is followed by a cluster of large foldout pages decorated with circular zodiacal or astrological diagrams, and this in turn gives way to a section of ten folios containing yet more unrecognizable text, interspersed with decidedly unerotic drawings of groups of plump naked women, bathing in pools and conduits of blue or green water, which some students of the manuscript have suggested might be symbolic representations of bodily functions such as reproduction.

After a further group of large foldout pages with more astronomical images, there follows another cluster of “herbal” images. These consist of multiple small drawings embedded in the text of each page, alongside objects in the margin that resemble pharmacological jars, perhaps suggesting that this part of the manuscript refers back to the opening herbal, and was intended as a collection of medical recipes. The book’s closing section consists of twenty-three pages of closely written text without illustration, made up of short paragraphs of just a few lines apiece, each paragraph prefaced by a star or asterisk.

Kraus had bought this baffling manuscript as a commercial speculation in 1961, for $24,500 plus a half share in any future profit. The vendor was Anne Nill, secretary, professional collaborator, and ultimate heir of the manuscript’s first discoverer, a remarkable Polish-Lithuanian bookdealer and adventurer, Wilfrid Michael Voynich. Born in 1864 and a graduate in law and chemistry from the University of Moscow, Voynich had been arrested in 1885…

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